Sunday, November 1, 2009

Wild Mushroom Risotto

So far I've been moving through these recipes at quite a clip, trying to make at least three a week. Unfortunately, my production will probably be slowing down soon since.... I GOT A JOB!! Finally, after months of looking and dozens of resumes sent out, I actually received two job offers and got to pick the one I wanted. And this was the dish I made on the night I accepted my offer.

I was actually really looking forward to this dish, which may seem strange to some of my family members since they know (or should know) that I hate mushrooms. However, I really love risotto. Funnily enough, Ina's introductory note for this recipe actually discusses her assistant, Barbara's own distaste for mushrooms, that is until she met porcini, morel, and shiitake. So I was actually optimistic for this dish; perhaps I've just been misled all these years by button mushrooms. Can Ina show me the light? 

In an effort to keep myself more organized and better prepared, I'm going to start gathering all my ingredients together before starting any cooking. People who have cooked with me know I like a clean kitchen. My mother taught me to always put an ingredient away once I was done with it, put dirty dishes and appliances in the sink, so you have a nice clear work space. Usually, this is the way I cook; however, I've been working in a smaller kitchen theses days so it can be hard to get all my ingredients on the counter and still have room to work. Nevertheless, I think it's going to help and, plus, now you get to see before pictures of all the ingredients

*Editor's note: my camera was being temperamental for some reason this day so sorry if some of the pictures are blurry. I don't know what it's problem is; clearly it's not operator error.
Arborio rice, pancetta, butter, cremini and dried morel mushrooms, saffron, chicken stock, shallot, white wine, Parmesan cheese
The first step was to rehydrate the morels which looked like this originally:
Not so delicious...or edible 
I covered them with boiling water and left them to plump for about half an hour:
In the meantime, I cleaned and sliced the cremini mushrooms, which were dirty little suckers. I went through 4 paper towels wiping away all the dirt. Since mushrooms are basically little sponges, running them under water to clean them will just make them rubbery, so instead, you wipe them off with a damp cloth or paper towel. Next on the chopping block was the pancetta:
Now, getting this lovely piece of pancetta was quite the debacle. Pancetta is basically Italian bacon, except it's salted rather than smoked. It's easy to find already packaged, but like prosciutto, is sliced thinly. I have yet to come across a recipe that uses thin-sliced pancetta. Instead, what is necessary to do is to ask someone working the deli counter at the grocery store to cut you a thick slice. For some reason, this was easier said than done. After waiting for someone to help me, being told I needed a number, and then waiting some more, I got fed up and continued shopping, resigning myself to thin pancetta. Dan, however, persevered. I don't know what exactly transpired at that deli counter but he showed up, thickly sliced pancetta in hand. My hero.

I diced this into medium-sized cubes (which, in retrospect were a little large) and then minced the shallot:
By now it was time to drain the morels. Using a spoon, I scooped the mushrooms out of the bowl, draining as much liquid as possible and transferred them to a small colander. I rinsed them and let them drain before putting them in a different ramekin. I poured the liquid that the morels had been steeping in through a paper towel and into a measuring cup, adding a little extra water so that I had the right amount:
The purpose of the paper towel was to filter any remaining gritty solids from the liquid, and this actually worked surprisingly well. It was a slight challenge pouring the liquid while holding the paper towel high enough above the measuring cup so it didn't get too wet and fall apart, but this step was definitely necessary. I must say, these mushrooms did not smell good, not when I took them out of the package, nor once they were rehydrated. This didn't really inspire a lot of confidence in the way they were going to taste.

In a small saucepan I combined the reserved mushroom liquid and my homemade chicken stock, which, as I've already discussed, looked more like chicken Jello:
Please note the weird, lumpy texture (but gorgeous color!)
While I was waiting for this to come up to a simmer, I grated the Parmesan cheese:
Once the stock mixture was just about simmering, I heated a larger put over medium-low heat and added the butter. Once it had melted, I added the shallot and pancetta:
This photo is somewhat deceiving because, as you can see, the pancetta and shallot seem to be sizzling away. This didn't happen until I turned up the heat to about medium to medium-high. The recipe calls for this to saute over medium-low heat for just 5 minutes, but there was no way the pancetta was going to brown over that heat and for that short amount of time. Now, the recipe doesn't specifically say that the pancetta should brown (one of the many omissions of this recipe), and I have to believe that it is meant to as I've never seen a recipe using bacon or pancetta in which it wasn't intentionally crisped and browned. Part of the problem could have been that I'm still not used to cooking on a gas stove, or that I hadn't diced the pancetta small enough, but I just can't imagine that would have made a difference.

I didn't want to overcook the shallots, so even though the pancetta still wasn't browned by this point, I went on to the next step, which was to add all of the mushrooms:
I sauteed this for another five minutes, still over medium heat, and was still frustrated the pancetta wasn't browning. Next, I added the rice, and stirred to coat the grains in butter:
I added the white wine to this mixture and cooked it for about 2 minutes. Next, I added some of the chicken stock mixture. The recipe says to add 2 ladles worth of stock, but unfortunately, I didn't have a clean ladle. Luckily, the saucepot I was using has a handy-dandy spout for pouring, so that's what I did for the duration of the cooking process. At this point I also added the saffron, salt, and pepper:
Saffron is a spice that I like a lot, but have hardly ever cooked with. It is used often in Spanish dishes such as paella and gives the dish a pretty yellow color. It is also very expensive this little amount:
was $8.00. Luckily, it stretches pretty far as you don't really need a lot to flavor one whole dish. This entire pot of risotto only used 1/4 teaspoon of saffron strands.

At this point, there was really just a lot of stirring and waiting going on. I was still having problems with the level of heat, as it was supposed to simmer over low heat but that just wasn't happening. I was still using a medium heat and was concerned the liquid would absorb or evaporate too quickly, not allowing the rice to cook all the way through. I was starting to get really frustrated and disappointed, sure that this dish wouldn't come out as I wanted it to. Dan did his best to cheer me up and offer suggestions, but I continued to pout since, you know, that always helps the situation.

I continued adding chicken stock every 5-10 minutes, once most of the liquid had been absorbed from the previous addition. Here's what the risotto looked like toward the middle of the cooking process, just after an addition of chicken stock:
It's hard to convey how hopeless I really felt at this point, but I was running out of stock, the rice was taking longer to cook than it should, and I was pretty sure I still hated mushrooms. Why did I think this would be a good dish to make as a celebration meal for my new job? I chock it up to a false level of confidence, although I can't imagine what would have happened if I had attempted this after an already tough day.

After about 30 minutes I only had one more addition of chicken stock left and I tested some rice to see how far it had progressed. It was still crunchy. FAIL.

At this point I was ready to throw in the towel, or dishcloth, but Dan was still optimistic, placating me by saying it would be fine. I added the last bit of chicken broth and crossed my fingers, which wasn't easy to do since I was holding a wooden spoon. Finally, after another 5 minutes, the risotto looked something like this:
Hmm, looked Ok, but was it done? 
We tested it out and thank goodness, it was cooked through. It was actually a pretty perfect consistency, thick and creamy and the rice was just al dente. I took it off the stove and stirred in the Parmesan cheese I had grated earlier, reserving some for the top of the plates. Here's the final plating:
So was all the frustration worth it in the end? I'd say so. I actually didn't mind the cremini mushrooms; they were pretty subtle and their texture wasn't offensive. But I could barely bring myself to try a morel. They were weird and spongy and didn't really smell much better than they had after their water bath. I bravely put a small one in my mouth and tried it. I was not a fan. Even though I generally picked my way around the mushrooms, I still think this was a pretty good dish, mostly because I love risotto so much. Dan cleaned his plate but wasn't so forthcoming with his thoughts; maybe he was too distracted by the episode of Grey's Anatomy we were watching...

I will say that I thought this was a bit salty, but I have a pretty low tolerance for salt. There's not a lot of salt in the dish, but it's possible I added too much cheese at the end, and particularly to my portion. I know what you're thinking: too much cheese?!? Impossible! But what I would suggest is to try this before adding any cheese to the individual servings. 

Make this when: you're feeling confident after a good day at work and want to make something a little extra special for dinner. However, it's not a great choice for someone who's never made risotto since Ina's instructions leave quite a few things to be desired. What does "a little dry" mean, Ina??? Not helpful.

 Next Course: Apple Dried Cherry Turnovers


  1. Great post! I really liked the writing. I love mushrooms... though the spongy ones sound like a no go :). I also loved the closing line addressing Ina. Can't wait for the apple dried cherry turnovers!

  2. This sounds like a dish I would really like. I bet this is one of those recipes that gets better the second or third time you make it. The ingredients make it sound like it would be delicious.

    Congrats on the Job! Hope this won't decrease your cooking opportunities to much!! I'd miss your posts!

    When am I getting invited up for dinner!?

  3. I am very impressed as always with your flexibility, mushrooms - Morgan didn't think I would see that in your kitchen. I on the hand really like mushrooms, risotto and of course CHEESE so sign me up. And I could use that homemade chicken stock that you will have made for me while I was out shopping.I know you don't always remember all the lessons (and experiences) we have shared, e.g. the trip to the Va. Living Museum but you have that "clean kitchen" concept nailed...and I am proud.

  4. What transpired between me, the ex-rugby-playing deli woman and that log of meat will never be shared.


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